One Year In - The State of The Game

Note: this post is about the state of the game in the UK I have literally no idea about anywhere else in the world. Even in the UK, my experience is limited and purely from what I have seen and experienced in my tiny little area of the country. I am definitely not giving a blanket opinion of the sport.

I want to start out by saying table tennis is unlike any single sport I have ever played. It is a sport where a fully grown adult can be beaten by an 8 year old, where you can play without moving at all or you can dart around like a ninja. It has tools that can make you absorb every single bit of spin to tools that make your balls feel like relative bullets. You can slow the game, speed it up basically you can make it into whatever you want it to be. So, for such a versatile game is it making the most of its attributes in the UK? The simple answer is no but there are reasons for this which we will get into and there is progress being made, which is what we will focus on towards the end of this analysis.

If I look back at my first time in a club and my early posts on my experiences. It was a case of feeling
like the unwelcome guest at the party. It is now the opposite I am at least one of the most well known people in my local clubs (mostly because of my hilariously short, shorts). I really didn't start that way though. It is possibly one of the most ridiculously elitist environments I have been in. I fundamentally know that the only reason I have any worth to a lot of clubs is because I am now relatively decent at table tennis and I am a big personality in a room and that is wrong. Likewise, I have watched others both slip down the pecking order and get very little help, therefore, even if they want to improve they can't.

What makes me most unhappy is this lack of improvement. I am remarkably lucky, as I have said before, to have Ben coaching me. I have said before that, partly, I have created my own luck by working abnormally hard but I also have spoken to the right guy at the right time and, fortunately, he didn't (only) find me annoying. Other people aren't so lucky and it is a real shame. At every single other sport I have ever participated in there has been coaches, of a sort. Athletics you are instantly assigned a coach, with Rugby you get the same and with Football the situation is similar. In no sport have I ever seen people turn up to a club with their young children and get literally zero help. It actually hurts me that so many of these clubs are so insular as to create an environment where progress is passively hindered. I have tried to help the odd kid while I play but I am not a coach, I have a specific goal to attain and I am not entirely sure how to teach techniques, other than what I can parrot from Ben. In my opinion there should be a coach at every club. England Table Tennis should have a representative that goes round and does a coaching day with everyone at every club. If there was just one person who allowed for half an hour at the beginning of sessions to coach people who were either younger or just of a lower ability, but willing to learn the standard of sport in the UK would jump 10 times over.

So I currently play in 3 "official" local table tennis leagues. All of which are shrinking. I have had three or four conversations with the elder members of the sport about the league's "glory days". These are indicative of the above i.e. a lack of coaching but also because of a problem with attracting youth and young adults. One or two, well placed, clubs have an abundance of members but most are dying and seem to be sleep walking into extinction. The irony is with Ping-Pong Bars, pop up tables and a sports mad country we have tons of young people tasting table tennis for the first time (just as I did about a year ago). The strange thing is that nobody seems to have bridged the gap between the people who are enjoying table tennis socially and the people who play it competitively. Personally, I think table tennis is cool but at the same time its not cool. When I go to Bounce, for example, and I am good at it, beat a couple of mates and have a drink I find it both fun and I feel good about playing it. I go to a club and playing table tennis instantly makes me a weirdo. I used to play it down myself, telling my mates it was barely a sport, laughing that I was becoming a bit of a loser. Funnily enough, I now spend my time justifying it, how hard it is, how wrong I was about it "not being a sport", how proud I am to be associated it. The problem is that the establishment as a whole is reluctant or even resistant to making itself into a mainstream, acceptable sport. I assume this is because the clubs are mostly run but older people. Older people may not know how to entice the youth through the door or, sadly, do not want them.

The clubs and the institutions could fix the problem. I mean some clubs don't even have a training night, or don't tell you where they are event based. This should be mandatory. All clubs should have a match night and a training night. If it stops some clubs functioning then that is fine, those players will go elsewhere or a new club will appear in its place but it will allow for new members and for people to learn and improve. I have no idea what the protocol is in the rest of the country but all leagues should run a youth league. It doesn't happen in my area and it is a real problem. Kids do not want to be beaten by their Granddads every week, it is disheartening and pointless. Don't get me wrong children should be allowed to play in the adult league, it should be actively encouraged but it absolutely should not be the only league that children can play in. I know some places don't have enough children etc. but there could easily be a league that is run across the county or across a couple of leagues. It is a travesty that this isn't covered. It would also allow, in the absence of coaching at every club, coaches to see children with a little bit of talent that could be nurtured better at a club nearby, that has coaching.

My next point is about girls. How are we, as a sport, so poor at attracting girls. We have a sport that evens out the sexes entirely until the elite levels. Women play in the top divisions of the local leagues and are often better than the men. Yet, we have such a poor female attendance in my area. They don't seem to be interested in it or even consider it. Sadly, that is a failing of the whole sport. Campaigns akin to the successful "this girl can" should be run. If women's football can find success then why can't table tennis find tons of female participants, in a sport that doesn't even require the label of being a "women's" sport? It is just a sport, for everyone. A good illustration is in my early blogs when my girlfriend could beat me. If she wasn't wedded to her horse, I am sure she would of been playing with me and probably would still be beating me now!

In conjunction, it is also a great "couples sport". Along the same lines as female participation, both of you can improve at the same rate, the sport requires a minimum of two people, it is fantastically sociable and once again I have never heard anyone or any institution mention it. An example of this are the couple that run my league club as well as a couple who have joined the club and basically spend their time playing each other, but they are playing in the league together. I really feel this could be expanded upon.

It isn't all negative though. The sport is wonderful in so many ways. As much as coaching might be lacking the effort people put in is remarkable. People are so dedicated to their clubs. They are genuinely trying to make a good environment for their members. My league club, doesn't have any qualified coaches but there are 3 or 4 people who literally spend every Sunday morning helping the kids. It isn't perfect but in the circumstances it is quite remarkable. The individuals concerned rarely get to play table tennis themselves in the morning and are instead trying to keep 30 12 year old's entertained. The people in general make a huge difference and, as much as I have criticised their insular nature, they are all very sweet and have a genuine care and affection for the game. There is love for the sport that is commonly found in minority sports. Nobody is there for the glory, half of them aren't even playing to win, they are just playing for love and once they realise you love it to they embrace you into their weird and wonderful family.

There is a fantastic social aspect to the game. If we look at the amount of bars and pubs installing table tennis tables (or completely dedicating their bar to table tennis) it highlights how social the sport is. It often brings people who aren't necessarily 'sporty' into an environment where they feel comfortable and can achieve. This is great if it can be harnessed in the right way.

I feel like this post is a summary of table tennis' near misses. It has so much going for it. It is the sport that is dressed up like a game. It is the exact opposite of darts (game dressed up as a sport) and requires a skill quota that is almost off the charts. It is so much fun and many people have embraced this as they go to their local bars or find their local clubs. However, to take this sport to the next level in my area and, perhaps, the UK as a whole, it needs an amalgamation of these things. A seamless network where a guy who 'likes' ping pong can be a guy who 'plays' table tennis can be a guy who is 'coached' as an athlete and, finally, can become a high level player. That transition is too problematic at the moment and, until it is fixed, it will be a sport that never fulfils its true potential.

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